Inside the Music | Serialism | Modern Era | Classical
In pre-Schoenberg tonal music, the ear finds its way around a composition by recognizing even quite disguised repetitions and variants and by sensing tensions between keys. Neither of these is possible in a piece of strict serial music. With a bit of practice, the ear can recognize the inversion of a phrase but not very readily a pattern of notes played backwards; still less upside-down and backwards. Serial composers sometimes compensate for this by using easily recognizable classical forms (as in Schoenberg’s Variations, where if the precise relationship of the various forms of the row is unclear the work is audibly a series of contrasted variations). Schoenberg’s pupil Webern, in his Concerto op. 24, devised a 12-note row in which a three-note cell is inverted, played backwards (retrograde) and in retrograde inversion. This intensification of Schoenberg’s method in fact makes the serial process easier to hear, the entire work being audible as a dazzling interplay of closely related three-note fragments. Webern said that this extreme concentration, far from being a restriction, in fact liberated his imaginative fantasy. His influence on the post-war avant-garde was profound.
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